Retailer Profile: Phenicia Specialty Foods

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Faced with changing times, supermarkets are responding to emerging consumer habits with sophisticated store formats and new creative products and services. Phenicia Specialty Foods in downtown Houston provides a prime example: a state-of-the-art 2,800 square meter market that opened in November 2011 in the luxury One Park Place tower across from Discovery Green Park. The Market became downtown Houston’s first grocery store in over 40 years.

City dwellers and workers now have a one-stop-shop Yummy! store stocked with all the market favourites. These include a sandwich bar, salad bar, olive bar, espresso bar and bakery with desserts and breads, prepared daily by European and Mediterranean chefs. The market also has a fresh pizza corner.

“The in-store experience is always our priority,” said Ann-Marie Tcholkian, one of the owners of the family business. “From there, everything evolves.”

The diversity the stores carry can translate into other areas, she added. The Houston grocer focused more on internal operations: the product line and customer service.

“Certainly people are looking for curbside delivery,” she said. “We are happy to offer it at this time.”

Phenicia Specialty Foods employs 125 to 150 people and the restaurant has another 40. The retailer never closed during the pandemic.

“Finding and keeping the right workforce has been difficult. In our key positions, we kept our staff from the pre-COVID days,” Tcholkian said. “We have a loyal and enthusiastic workforce. They help us in our daily decisions. They are downstairs with everyone else. There is a desire to work as a team. »

Origins of a specialty grocery store

Phenicia Specialty Foods is a dream that began small in 1983. Arpi and Zohrab Tcholakian, formerly Lebanese and of Armenian descent, opened Phenicia Deli, a 2,500 square foot Mediterranean-style delicatessen and deli, on Westheimer Road in Houston. . Zohrab convinced Arpi that it would be better for them to pursue their passion for food and not wait for the layoffs that awaited Zohrab engineers when the oil industry collapsed in the 1980s.

As a child, Zohrab enjoyed working in his father’s corner grocery store in Lebanon. The business came very naturally to them and despite the economic downturn of the 1980s, the Tcholakians were determined and gained a loyal following. Phenicia Deli still thrives as a restaurant just across from its original location and is now called Arpi’s Phenicia Deli after the family matriarch.

In 1992, Phenicia Deli rented space to store the many imported goods they received. Soon retail and wholesale customers began to flock to the storage space for a crate of their desired and hard-to-find specialty items, and eventually this grocery storage space became a food market. of specialty.

In 2006, Phenicia Specialty Foods was born, a 55,000 square foot international food market located across from the deli. Since then, the company has continued to grow and has tripled in size, thanks to loyal gourmet friends.

“We are still at the heart of a family business with very involved owners, but with a different set of challenges in growing and scaling,” Tcholkian said. “Our specialization in supplying the regions of the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Europe and Eastern Europe has contributed to our sustainability. My parents, founding owners from the start, wanted to make sure we weren’t too specialized and not too over the top that we lost our strength of staying true to this niche and serving foods we grew up with. which were part of our roots. . Additionally, we have amplified our ability to find ways to produce hard-to-find or labor-intensive foods.

For example, the market is equipped with three conveyor belts that transport freshly baked pita breads and flatbreads from the market’s mezzanine bakery to customers on the ground floor.

Much of Phenicia’s success was due to import power which kept prices reasonable for customers. Phenicia is improving every day thanks to its commitment to listening to customer requests. In addition, Phenicia is proud to produce sought-after gourmet foods in-house, with freshness and quality in mind.

The grocer specializes in pita breads and the flatbreads they produce (including items like Tanour, Palestinian bread, Iraqi bread, Pita Puffs, Armenian Madnakash “pulled bread”, Zaatar bread, Feta Cheese Bread, Akawai Cheese Bread, and Lahmajun Flatbread). They also make at least 30 kinds of Middle Eastern baklava and pastries, as well as European-style baked goods and bakery staples. They make four types of hand-rolled grape leaves and cabbage leaves.

“We make labor-intensive and flavorful Lebanese-style kibe in balls and flat plates, with the option of eating fresh in the market or frozen to cook at home,” she said. . “Other labor-intensive items we produce in our chef’s kitchen include Greek Pasticcio lasagna, eggplant parmesan, Middle Eastern meat, cheese and vegetable pies, spanakopita and tyropita. I guess we make at least 15 different kinds of feta, and the seven we have by the pound in brine in the deli crate are always refreshing to breathe.

The retailer offers its own yogurts, lebnis, Shanklish cheese (dried feta in a spice crust), taramasalata, basterma and more, and plenty of prepared food options ranging from hummus, couscous, pomegranate salmon to harissa wings .

Phenicia Foods Downtown offers MKT BAR, an on-site gastro pub that can accommodate up to 260 people. This urban and trendy meeting place is the perfect stop before the theatre, after a sporting event or simply to enjoy a tasty evening. See MKTBAR.COM for nightly music schedule and more. Phenicia Foods Downtown is a one-stop destination for Houstonians, foodies, and visitors alike (with the convenience of a free on-site parking garage). Plus, catering and delivery are available for downtown neighbors.

Among many accolades, Phenicia Specialty Foods was named one of the top 10 grocery stores in the United States by Saveur magazine, and My Table magazine named Phenicia Best Grocery Store. Travel host Samantha Brown mentioned Phenicia on her PBS show Places to Love.

Concepts that correspond to needs

“Our Westheimer Road location caters to more family shoppers – with big shopping carts looking for lots of ingredients,” says Tcholkian. “At this downtown location, we offer a lot of both, including a lot of prepared foods. We expanded the range and got creative. People felt comfortable coming here. We didn’t have the same lunch traffic as before because people wanted to take food home.

In response, the grocer created many ready-to-go salad wrappers and snack boxes. A creative example is a snack box containing honey pepper goat cheese, salami and Muhammara red pepper dip. “It was something new. They are doing very well,” she said. “Everyone can have their own little snack box. People love the idea of ​​giving away these delicious gourmet packages. We love helping people celebrate.

Every day they walk through the door: “We ask ourselves, ‘How can we be better?’ We want to set an example of how we can do this differently.

On the one hand, you absolutely must listen to customers. That’s why Phenicia Specialty Foods has never stopped exploring new ideas. They offer Greek lasagna, cannoli, rice skewers, shrimp pesto, dishes to share.

By listening to people, the grocer learned that shoppers want a more relaxed and familiar environment. They want healthier options.

“We brought back our salad bar and our olive bar. People are delighted. »

In the deli, they added a lot of deli ready meals that take up about 10 more feet of display space. It’s something they keep. It makes sense for the changing lifestyles of their customers.

The Phenicia brand

“Our brand is known for its established import power and extending those benefits and economies of scale to our customers,” Tcholkian said. “If you walk through our Westheimer site, you will see aisles of 4-story pallet racking of imported merchandise that is sold in our stores and also wholesales primarily in the Southwest region of the United States. If you walk through our olive oil aisle, you will see reasonably priced items due to our import strategies. We do our best to keep prices reasonable and down-to-earth, and more basic products on the dinner table, compared to gourmets out of reach.

Additionally, the grocer focuses on touches of creativity and character (like the way things are named or posters suggesting seasonal cooking classes for kids), displays and a mix of produce, which also plays an important role in making it an experience for customers.

The ability to change the store’s footprint from a large 100,000 square foot market location to a 26,000 square foot market location when the opportunity arises, and sister restaurants that expand the name and experience , have been instrumental in their groceries.

The freshness, variety, novelty, hard-to-find factor, and quality make the market an experience for customers.

“We have always worked hard to make the store an experience. It’s still our main marketing tool, natural word of mouth,” she said. “Social media and a user-friendly and effective website are our other goals. We attend and donate to non-profit events and community needs.

E-commerce and online marketing are essential parts of the program.

“COVID has given us time to build a more automated e-commerce website than what we’ve been offering before,” Tcholkian said. “We’ve created platforms for the grocery side of the business as well as the restaurant side of the business. It was definitely something we needed to do regardless of COVID, but the habits created by COVID also made the need for these platforms very necessary.

Looking ahead, the company’s goals are to “always differentiate” and figure out how the grocer can further grow its urban market, even when only less than a third of workers work in physical offices in the center. -town.

“We will explore the idea of ​​creating satellite locations to establish a presence in other Houston neighborhoods.”

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